Write a critical review of Andre Breton's 'Nadja' (1928) and how it sheds light on his vision of surrealism, woman and the city of Paris.

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PAPER 12/13:          THE POETICS AND POLITICS OF SURREALISM                     ESSAY 2

Write a critical review of Andre Breton’s ‘Nadja’ (1928) and how it sheds light on his vision of surrealism, woman and the city of Paris.

Effective literary criticism usually requires an understanding of the particular genre under consideration.  Immediately Breton’s Nadja confronts and confuses: ‘The first thing is, this is not a novel.  The second: it’s not strictly factual either.’  Lacking the literary ‘automatism’ of Champs des magnétiques, the prose poetry of Baudelaire, or the narrative description of Emile Zola, Nadja defies categorization.  Faced with such uncertainty the critical reviewer is already on his guard.  Surrealist followers add little to his confidence, asserting ‘the reticence of critics and professors regarding this work, their palpable helplessness as they try, without success, to handle it with their usual methods of explication and analysis.’  At the risk of further ridicule this critical review will advance a few tentative observations.  Breton appears to have created his own rubric, substituting traditional narrative and description, with his own surrealist techniques for creating structure, imagery and myth.  Understanding how Breton evokes his vision of surrealism, through the pages of Nadja, is the first step in analyzing this technique.  Discussing this maelstrom of ideas, the inevitable focus is on the fulcrum around which the book turns, the psychotic figure of Nadja, Breton’s woman and symbol, the embodiment of his ‘surrealist aspiration’.  Breton’s ‘account of what I have been permitted to experience in this domain’ is played out against the tapestry of the Grand Boulevards, cafes and theatres of urban Paris.  Analysis of this ‘stage set’, reveals, paradoxically in the light of his surrealist aims, the highly descriptive (textual and visual) construction of Breton’s ‘domain’.  Drawing these strands together the conclusion considers whether Nadja is ‘the quintessential Surrealist romance’ or more menacingly, a perverse and egotistical exploitation of a vulnerable young woman.

Nadja is not the ‘false novel’ Breton advocates in his first Surrealist Manifesto (1924).  His unconscious, unbidden, process of automatic writing to produce words and images that ‘are only so many springboards for the mind of the listener’ is inconsistent with the structure, coherence and ‘stylistic polish’ of Nadja.  Structured in three parts, reminiscent of Freud’s analytical approach to the interpretation of dreams (preamble, dream description/analysis and conclusion), Nadja opens with a clear statement of intent.  The work is above all autobiographical, at once a journey of self-discovery and the promotion of a new revolutionary movement, in the service of and ‘driven’ by the unconscious mind.  ‘Qui suis- je’ and the more disturbing, subliminal ‘knowing whom I “haunt” set the tone for the central theme of Nadja, an exploration not of the young woman of the title but of Breton himself.  In the first third of the book Breton prepares the landscape, according to his own surrealist vision, for his encounter with Nadja, emphasizing the importance and vitality of chance and coincidence.  His meeting with Nadja on October 4th opens a series of ‘journal’ entries, that echo the clinical investigations of contemporary psychiatry, but in reality represent his ultimate conception of surrealist woman, a canvas onto which he projects his surrealist aspirations.  The madness of Nadja terminates this section and in a short third section (little more than an epilogue) Breton moves on, as portended by Nadja, to a new relationship, but is again thwarted as his latest love leaves Paris by train bringing the book to its enigmatic end ‘Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be at all.’

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Despite its apparent simplicity this structure is conditioned by Breton’s vision of surrealist phenomena.  His role as the protagonist and narrator of this voyage of ‘self-discovery’ has strong precedents in the literature of the imagination.  Attacking the poverty of narrative and descriptive writing (clearly identified in his first two manifestoes) he champions the work of Rimbaud, Lautrémont and Huysmans who most of all exemplified ‘this great victory of the involuntary over the ravaged domain of conscious possibilities’.  Ambiguity, uncertainty, the implication of things unknown, these are the concepts that Breton wishes to convey to his audience.  His only interested ...

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